"Almost criminal in its housebreaking, burglarizing, second-story genius."―James Kincaid, University of Southern CaliforniaThe Victorian age is much closer to us in time than we might believe. Yet at that time, in the most technologically advanced nation in the world, people buried meat in fresh earth to prevent mold forming and wrung sheets out in boiling water with their bare hands. Such household drudgery was routinely performed by the grandparents of people still living, but the knowledge of it has passed as if it had never been.
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Judith Flanders is the author of A Circle of Sisters, which was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. She lives in London.From The Washington Post:
It is easy, and tempting, to take a romantic view of the Victorian Age, to wax sentimental about its high moral standards, its extraordinary literature, its great strides in industrial production and domestic conveniences and, of course, the good queen from whom it takes its name. Judith Flanders acknowledges as much at the end of her exhaustive study of domestic life in Victorian England. But in many respects the picture she draws -- and she draws it with obsessive attention to detail -- is a useful corrective to over-romanticizing. Her attention is focused on city life, London in particular; what she shows us is a world in which dirt, vermin and disease were nearly inescapable, and in which the labor of maintaining even the best-managed households was endless, exhausting and often dangerous.
The 19th century, as she says, "was the century of urbanization." Whereas in 1801 "only 20 percent of the population of Great Britain lived in cities," a century later "that figure had risen to nearly 80 percent." With a population of about a million in 1800, London was the largest city in the world, and at century's end that figure had multiplied five times. "To house the numbers of newly urbanized people was a challenge without precedent," Flanders writes. "One-third of the houses in Britain today were built before the First World War, and most of these are Victorian. In a period of less than seventy-five years, over six million houses were built, and the majority stand and function as homes still."
In London, as in New York and in certain sections of Washington, most of these houses are what the British call "terraced," which is approximately the same as what Americans call "row houses"; indeed Flanders betrays an ignorance of American society and history when she says that "unlike the American row house, the English terraced house is highly flexible socially and economically." Built in rows, sharing common walls, these houses solved the problem of urban living with impressive ingenuity, managing to combine economical use of urban space with the privacy that city dwellers longed for amid the growing depersonalization of society that was an inadvertent byproduct of the industrial age. Flanders writes:
"What the house contained, how it was laid out, what the occupations of its inhabitants were, what its housekeeper did all day: these were the details from which society built up its picture of the family and the home, and it is precisely these details that I am concerned with in this book. I have shaped the book not along a floor plan but along a life span. I begin in the bedroom, with childbirth, and move on to the nursery, and children's lives. Gradually I progress to the public rooms of the house and with these rooms the adult public world, marriage and social life, before moving on, via the sickroom, to illness and death. Thus a single house contains a multiplicity of lives."
As that suggests, there is much more to this book than architectural design, floor plans, household furniture and kitchenware. The chapter entitled "The Scullery" is only incidentally about the "dirty, and damp, and dark" place where scrubbing of tableware and cookware was done, where "all the jobs that could be passed over to the servants as soon as possible were performed"; it is really, as that suggests, about the lives and labors of servants, an immense class of more than a million people in mid-Victorian London. We see them now on "Upstairs, Downstairs" or in Merchant-Ivory films, and aren't given even a clue: "Most servants' work was backbreaking, and they were rarely healthy, suffering from long-term illnesses caused by poor nutrition, confined quarters, and lack of sun and fresh air." One of these, Hannah Cullwick, kept a diary. Here is her entry for July 16, 1860:
"Lighted the fire. Brush'd the grates. Clean'd the hall & steps & flags on my knees. Swept & dusted the rooms. Got breakfast up. Made the beds & emptied the slops. Clean'd & wash'd up & clean'd the [silver] plate. Clean'd the stairs & the pantry on my knees. Clean'd the knives & got dinner. Clean'd 3 pairs of boots. Clean'd away after dinner & began the preserving about ½ past 3 & kept on till 11, leaving off only to get the supper & have my tea. Left the kitchen dirty & went to bed very tired & dirty."
That more than a million people daily performed such hard and demeaning labor is testimony to the central role of servants in polite Victorian society. The middle and upper-middle classes expanded dramatically as the fruits of industrialization and population growth spread far beyond the old nobility and gentility. The handsome houses in which they lived (in Victorian England people usually rented, rather than owned, their residences) were immensely labor-intensive, drawing housewives as well as servants into the work force: "The majority of women worked regularly and hard in their houses: they made the beds, cleaned the lamps, washed windows, skinned and prepared meat for cooking, and made preserves and wine, as well as cooking daily meals, dusting, sweeping, scrubbing, sewing and upholstering, doing the laundry, making curtains and clothes, and cutting and laying carpeting; many even repaired shoes and boots. All the things that it is now thought that 'genteel' women of the time did not do, they did."
Much of this labor was made necessary by the lack of anything approximating modern conveniences, even in the most privileged households, but much of it had to be done for the simple reason that London, like all cities of the age, was filthy. Dirt was everywhere: household dust, chimney soot and coal residue, night soil. Interior walls were covered with at least three coats of lead, and "some wallpapers had concentrations of [arsenic] that ran as high as 59 percent." Vermin were everywhere: "For us, mice and rats are the first thought at the word 'vermin'; for the Victorians it was bugs: blackbeetles, fleas, even crickets." If not fought incessantly, according to one contemporary account, they would "multiply till the kitchen floor at night palpitates with a living carpet, and in time the family cockroach will make raids on the upper rooms, . . . the beetles would collect in corners of the kitchen ceiling, and hanging to one another by their claws, would form huge bunches or swarms like bees towards evening and as night closed in, swarthy individuals would drop singly on to floor, or head, or food."
Yet somehow, though perched eternally at the edge of squalor, the Victorians managed to make decent lives for themselves, with comfortable parlors and dining rooms (the latter often served "as both a dining room and a family sitting room"), and drawing rooms for receiving and entertaining friends. That they did so was almost entirely due to women. The "hierarchy of authority was undisputed: God gave his authority to man, man ruled woman, and woman ruled her household -- both children and servants -- through the delegated authority she received from man." Women inhabited, as we can see from the vantage point of the 21st century, a "bizarre disjunction" in which they were both treasured and patronized: "As nurses, as mothers, as educators of future generations, women were able, capable, adept and proficient managers; as wives, as daughters, as sisters, women were unstable, fragile, uncertain creatures needing masculine guidance."
By the end of the 19th century that was beginning to change, albeit slowly and against masculine resistance, but it was daily reality for all except the most atypical Victorian women. To her credit Flanders does not bang the feminist drum -- simple statement of the facts is all that is required to underscore the self-evident points -- but it would be difficult indeed for any reader to come away from Inside the Victorian Home with anything except admiration for these doughty women and exasperation at the smug, self-righteous men who saw it as their God-given right to dominate and use them.
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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